Obama Helps Restart Talks Between Israel & Turkey

Israel apologized to Turkey today for the May 2010 incident on board the Mavi Marmara naval vessel, part of a flotilla to Gaza, in which nine Turks were killed from Israel Defense Forces fire. The apology came during a 30-minute telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, orchestrated by President Barack Obama, who was ending his 3 day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Erdogan accepted the Israeli apology, and the leaders agreed to begin a normalization process between Israel and Turkey, following the past three years, when relations were practically at a standstill. (Last December, I wrote about the beginnings of a Turkey-Israeli rapprochement, and discussed more of the policy implications here.)

This development allows the two countries to begin a new phase in their relationship, which has known crisis and tension, but also cooperation and a strong strategic partnership.

The U.S. administration played a key role behind the scenes in creating the conditions that paved the way for an Israeli apology and Turkish acceptance. Undoubtedly, a close relationship between Turkey and Israel– two of America’s greatest allies in the region– serves United States’ strategic interests globally and regionally. At a time when the Middle East political landscape is changing rapidly, it was imperative to end the long impasse between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Over the past year, Turkey and Israel have also come to realize that repairing their relationship and re-establishing a dialogue is at their best interest, as they face great challenges in their immediate vicinity (first and foremost, the Syrian civil war).

United States officials emphasized that this is the first step in a long process. Nevertheless, the parties will have to make a great effort to overcome years of distrust and suspicion if they want the relationship to work. No one is under the allusion that relations will go back to what they were in the “honeymoon” period of the 1990s but modest improvement can be made. It will not be an easy task, and for that to happen it is essential that the parties not only talk to each other, but also listen to one another and begin to respect each other’s sensitivities. In order for this rapprochement to be successful, United States will have to continue to oversee discussions between Turkey and Israel, and remain heavily engaged in this process.